Advice for Aspiring Writers — Part the First

In the course of a blog tour to promote my debut novel, “The Heir,” I’ve been asked more than once what advice I have for aspiring writers. I hardly know why anybody would ask me such a thing. I have ONE book on the shelves, and that’s it. My experience and wisdom are quite, quite limited, so please take anything I say on the matter with more than a grain of salt.

Having offered the requisite disclaimer, however, I do have some suggestions (and will be blogging about this on the next few Mondays), the first being to write more than you aspire to write. I went to my first writer’s conference because I had turned fifty, and while I was having great good fun writing and writing, I wanted to know if my stuff had a shot at publication.

No, that’s not quite accurate: I hoped my stuff was good enough for commercial consumption, and understood that I could learn to pitch editors and agents at conferences. I shook my piggy bank, signed up for some conferences, and prepared to be brave. Within the first hour, I had the sense everybody was farther along the curve toward publication than I was. The other attendees quoted craft books to each other, reminisced about workshops where they’d learned so much, debated the strengths of various critique approaches, and went into raptures about this or that person’s query letter.

They dropped the names of editors and agents and houses and lines like publishing romance was a major league sport of which they were all fans and I had not the clue. I kept my head down, and my backside tucked in, and tried to learn as much as I could, but it was daunting.

What I learned was that completing twenty novel length manuscripts in a few years wasn’t normal. I concluded my stuff was probably not worth much, because I’d churned it out too quickly. I learned that writing that much without a critique group or even a partner wasn’t smart, it being accepted wisdom that I’d make more progress faster if I had either, or better still, both. I concluded that I’d been remiss, and started casting around for some people who could read and improve my drafts.

I learned that everybody with any substance at all as a fiction writer has a preferred plotting device, whether it’s GMC charts (goal/motivation/conflict), story boards, or archetypal heroic journey constructs. They have character development tools, and writing plans, and word count goals, and all manner of writerly paraphernalia. I concluded that I didn’t know jack, and I’d better start over and try again and get with the program here, or my laughable little attempts at telling a love story were never going to go anywhere.

All of which lasted a few weeks, before I was back writing and writing, having a great time—no crit groups, no craft books, no plot devices, just me and my computer and my imagination. At the next year’s conference, I decided to start pitching. The first person I pitched ended up offering me a nine book deal.

My point is not that you should toss out the craft books, abandon the crit groups, and jettison the plotting devices. If they work for you, hang onto to them with all your strength. My point is that you and only you will know if something makes the writing better, or simply wastes your time and energy, bewilders you, and saps your confidence and joy in the writing process, while providing a bunch of other—well intended, perfectly nice—people who are not you something to talk about when they’re having a grand time not really writing. Don’t aspire to write. Write.

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4 comments on “Advice for Aspiring Writers — Part the First

  1. This first blog will be hard to equal, let alone improve upon. If you ask yourself: what would you be looking for as you were reviewing potential manuscripts? More of the same or something different. You could have said explicitly that if you feel comfortable with what you are doing, then it’s probably ok. If, on the other hand, you know that something is wrong and you are unable to correct it or make it better, it may be time to check with more successful writers and try to make changes. Don’t be afraid to be different or inventive. This is how I interpret your blog. I look forward to your next one.

  2. There’s another point here too, Roger. Among the not-yet-published, there are many who talk like they are pursuing publication, many who gesture like they are pursuing publication, many who quote experts like they are just one microtome slice away from publication, but they aren’t writing–they aren’t drafting, they aren’t outlining, they aren’t taking that last, crucial step of putting words on a screen. And yet, their example can be a very convincing distraction. So convincing, you can’t hear your Work in Progress trying to get written over the resulting noise.

  3. I asked you this very question when talking to you earlier on NightOwlRomaces and here I have the perfect answer. Thank you for supplying the link and I look forward to reading your novels in due course! D.S.

  4. Thank you for writing this. At this point in my journey, I had gotten lost, stopped writing and thought I wasn’t approaching the selling/marketing aspect correctly so stopped. But the stories keep coming, so thank you, for seeing and sharing the process through a different pair of lenses – now tinted, tilted, and adjusted to my vision.